Unsung Song plays the starring role as Arsenal go top
By Jonny Payne.
Cesc Fabregas and Nicklas Bendtner may have made the headlines in recent weeks but another commanding performance from Alexandre Song helped Arsenal back to the top of the league with a hard-fought victory over West Ham.
The unsung Song was the heartbeat of the side against the Premier League strugglers, first dictating play from the defensive midfield berth he has made his own this season, then putting in a commanding performance in defence after Arsenal were reduced to ten-men. The Cameroon international has come a long way from the days when his own fans booed him, and he is rapidly developing into one of the best holding midfielders in Europe.
Arsenal were in control from the off and soon made possession pay as Denilson found the net after just five minutes. They did not have it all their own way, however, as just before half-time Arsenal were reduced to ten when Thomas Vermaelen brought down Guillermo Franco in the penalty box. Luckily for Arsenal, Alessandro Diamanti failed to beat Manuel Almunia in the home goal. A late penalty converted by Fabregas then put the game beyond doubt sending Arsenal top in the process.
With all talk of Arsenal’s draw against Barcelona in the Champions League semi-finals before kick-off, Arsene Wenger warned against thinking too far ahead, insisting the match against West Ham was his and his players’ main focus.
The Arsenal manager put his faith much of the side that started the match against Hull last weekend with Sol Campbell continuing in defence in the absence of William Gallas. Cesc Fabregas and Song returned from injury and suspension respectively in place of Abou Diaby and Bacary Sagna, with Emmanuel Eboue moving to right-back. Man-of-the-moment, Nicklas Bendtner, continued to lead the line after scoring four times in the past two matches.
Arsenal started confidently, playing some scintillating football at times early in the first half, orchestrated as ever by Fabregas but also by Song who seemed to be everywhere. The 22 year-old dominated the midfield, putting in crucial challenges, linking up play with some neat one-touch football and driving forward to join the attack.
But it was the man so often his understudy who opened the scoring on five minutes. Denilson picked the ball up on the edge of the area and played a quick one-two with Bendtner before firing low into the bottom right corner of Robert Green’s net. There were no signs of the players’ minds being on anything other than gaining three points against their London rivals.
With Denilson soon on the end of another beautifully crafted move, it looked like the floodgates could open, but the Brazilian could only scuff his effort straight at England’s number one. Emmanuel Eboue, another of those whose fortunes have turned around this season, was also proving to be a menace arriving from right-back to join in the attack at every opportunity.
It seemed too easy for the Gunners and just when the men in red and white were thinking more about increasing their goal difference than simply gaining three crucial points, West Ham were given a golden opportunity to equalise.
A hopeful long ball by Diamanti put Franco through and Vermaelen let it bounce, always a risky decision. The Mexican went down as the Arsenal defender stretched for the ball and the referee pointed to the spot and dished out a red card to the Belgian. In truth it was a harsh decision, there was a slight nudge but it is the type of challenge that is often left unpunished. The 24 year-old will only miss one match, away to Birmingham next week.
Luckily for Vermaelen, Almunia saved to his left from the usually dependable penalty-taker Diamanti. The Spanish goalkeeper has come in for some criticism from Arsenal fans recently but his save could have a mammoth impact on his team’s title chances.
Instead of sitting-back, in true Arsenal style the players pushed forward trying to score a second. It could have been two soon after the restart as Arshavin found space in the box from an inviting Eboue cross, but he couldn’t direct his header on target.
West Ham did have some chances. First Diamanti was afforded a lot of time and space to run at the defence but his left-footed effort was deflected wide, then Carlton Cole cut inside skipping past the challenges of Gael Clichy and Song and dispatching a low left-footed effort onto the outside of the post.
But by now Abou Diaby had replaced Nicklas Bendtner, and with Arshavin being pushed further forward, the French international started to boss the midfield. He is finally looking like the player many thought he could become, a calm and confident player on the ball with a devastating burst of pace – an attack-minded reincarnation of Patrick Vieira.
With Arsenal looking almost as comfortable with ten men as eleven, the win didn’t seem in much doubt and with seven minutes to go Arsenal had an opportunity to settle the match.
Former Gunner Matthew Upson handled the ball inside the box after Fabregas tried to break through with a deft touch and the Spaniard stepped up to convert his 15th league goal of the season, dispatching a calm penalty to the goalkeeper’s right.
From then on it was plain sailing for the Gunners. It could have been more but Arsene Wenger’s men settled for a two-goal win – with ten men it could have been much worse.
It was a confident performance by the Gunners, with yet more proof of the maturing of this young team. A couple of seasons ago Arsenal would have crumbled in this situation, but now they seem to thrive on adversity. With the likes of Alex Song and Abou Diaby improving day-by-day, this team can and surely will go a long way. Barcelona beware.
Player Ratings: Almunia 7, Eboue 8, Campbell 7, Vermaelen 6, Clichy 7, Song 9, Denilson 8, Fabregas 7, Nasri 7 (Sagna 6), Arshavin 6 (Eduardo 6), Bendtner 6 (Diaby 8)
Arsenal: Almunia, Eboue, Campbell, Vermaelen (S.O 45), Clichy, Song, Denilson, Fabregas, Nasri (Sagna 74), Arshavin (Eduardo 84), Bendtner (Diaby 57).
West Ham: Green, Spector, Tomkins, Upson, Daprela, Stanislas, Behrami, Kovac (Noble 70), Diamanti, Franco (Cole 57), Mido (McCarthy 75).
Should Vermaelen have been sent off? Do Arsenal have what it takes to beat Barcelona and win the premier league? Please leave your comments below…..
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